FEATURES,  Features

River Wye source to sea

Ian Rivers, Nicola Goodwin and Julie Hardman became the first people to swim and walk the entire length of the River Wye from the source at Plynlimon through to the Severn estuary

We were freezing, every

part of our bodies

ached and all three of

us smelled horrific: a

mixture of mud, wee, sweat, neoprene

and a whole host of other stenches

that we were too scared to find the

sources of. It was day nine of our

challenge, day six of our swim, and it

was starting to get tough.

We were swimming between Ross

on Wye and Goodrich and, from the

start; we’d known that this would be

one of the toughest days. The River

Wye meanders in huge arcing curves

through the valley with cliffs on one

side and high banks and ploughed

fields on the other making it difficult

to navigate by landmarks or find a

suitable place for our support team to

bring us food and drink. We’d had to

use a rope to climb up an irrigation

pipe through nettles and thistles to get

our first hot drinks that morning and

it was a long way to our second stop.

As we rounded a bend we were

greeted with an explosion of feathers

covering the surface of the water; a mixed flock of swans and Canada

geese were sitting on the shingle

beaches and floating in the shallows.

There were birds everywhere, at least

200 of the majestic creatures moving

effortlessly through the river. Ian was

ahead so he signalled to move towards

the left bank away from the bulk of

the flock, we followed and so did the birds. For the next few miles we experienced something unexpected and unrepeatable as we swam withand alongside the birds through deep, clear water. They displayed only curiosity, not fear, and we all had huge grins on our faces as we made our way downstream. This moment summed up our challenge; it was difficult but every second was worth it thanks to the chance to become part of river life.

“You’re never too old to have

an adventure.” That had been our

inspiration and our motivation

throughout the challenge. All three of

us were experienced swimmers and

coaches but we realised that we knew

almost nothing about the River Wye

that flows through our county. The idea had first been mooted a few years

before and then at the start of 2016 we

found ourselves surrounded by maps

and coffee planning our stages.

R Wye Team

True adventurers: Julie, Nicola and Ian

The River Wye dominates our home county of Herefordshire as it has done since man first settled in the valley between the Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains and Malvern Hills. If we were to step into a Tardis and visit our ancestors from the Iron Age onwards the only part of the Wye Valley thatt hey would recognise would be the river. As settlements, towns and villages have come and gone the river has remained. We regularly swim in sections of it but parts were completely unknown to us. Now was the time to explore and what better way than by swimming?

The River Wye is officially 134 miles long from Plynlimon to the sea where it meets the Severn at Beachey Head but from the start it was obvious that our challenge would be a lot longer. It would be impossible to swim for the first few days as the river is either just a trickle or underground so, on 12 September 2016, we put our walking boots on and set off in the Land Rover.

We found the source of the river

at Plynlimon easily using satellite

navigation so at 8am on a misty

morning we hit ‘GO’ and started

downhill – and then the fun

started. We battled waist-high

grass, bogs, tumbles, hidden

mine shafts, blisters and rain

for the next three days. For

almost 55 miles we trekked

along the banks of the Wye

looking longingly at the

water below and wondering

when we’d finally be able to get

in and swim.

What kept us going on foot and

in the river throughout the challenge

was the kindness of friends and

strangers. On the first day of walking

we met farmers and their dogs and

saw red kites and buzzards soaring

overhead. Every person we saw on

route smiled, nodded or stopped to

chat and ask us what we were doing.

During three days of walking we saw two ramblers letting themselves hang

free and loose, a man sketching bricks

and a couple taking a harrier hawk for

a walk, experiences we’d never have

had without stepping out.

R Wye Refuelling

Refuelling with a nice cup of tea

Finally on day four the water was

deep enough for us to swim and at Glasbury we stepped into the glorious Wye. Our feet were covered in cuts, bruises and blisters and had been on fire for the past three days so

feeling the water cooling them

down was wonderful. After

the summer of very little rain we knew there would be many shallow parts of the river so wewere swimming in barefoot-style shoes, and that was a wise move as

they protected us through the rapids

and were barely noticeable while we

were moving.

That first morning of swimming

was tough as the water was still

really shallow and colder than we’d

expected, around 12 degrees. We were

passing through the border town of

Hay on Wye and some of the most amazing landscape in the UK but the

swimming was difficult as we were

being bashed to bits by the rocks. We’d

taken advice from other swimmers,

such as the Hudson brothers, who’d

attempted similar feats and so we

sculled on our backs through the

rapids and used our tow floats for

extra buoyancy. Swimming through

shallow water saps your energy, it is

best described as being in a washing

machine with rocks, and we adopted a side push with our hands instead of the normal front crawl to attempt to make progress without breaking our fingers.

R Wye Kayak Support

Kayak support kept the swimmers safe

We rarely spoke while we were

swimming. We’d found by trial

and error that we worked best by

swimming for between 1.5 and two

hours at a time then stopping for a

quick refuel before getting straight

back in and swimming away without

looking back. We were using tow-

floats for safety and had two bottles

with us that we could use to takeon extra drink if we needed it, but for most of the day we would swim in an arrow formation, 10 to 15

metres apart, just checking every few

hundred metres that we were all safe.

We swam for an average of 15

kilometres a day in three stints of 5

kilometres, stopping for hot drinks

and food on the banks. Our

amazing team of family and friends soon

became known as

our water butlers

and without them

we wouldn’t have finished

the challenge.

When you’re

feeling cold and

tired and you

round a corner to

see your loved ones

waving and smiling

it gives you such a boost.

R Wye Ian Gets Some Tips

Ian gets a few top tips from the locals

Total strangers such as Dick and

Syd from Chepstow Harriers running

club would arrive in the middle of a

field carrying flasks of tea, blankets

and cake plus words of support and

encouragement. Such kindness is humbling and inspiring.

We were raising funds for St Michael’s Hospice in memory of our relatives and friends who hadbeen cared for there in their final weeks. Our money was going towards the hospice drinks trolley, an amazing facility which allows the patients to have a tipple oft heir choice every evening before bed. Such a simple, fun gesture makes those being cared for feel like themselves even at the toughest of times and knowing we were doing a

tiny bit to help really spurred us on during our low points. Swimming for up to six hours each day gives you lots of time for reflection and thinking and it’s wonderfully cathartic to have to think of nothing else except putting one hand in front of the other.

After seven days and 90 miles

of swimming we reached Bigsweir

Bridge and the end of our swim; we

would walk the final 20 kilometres

to the sea as the tide was so strong

that we couldn’t risk the danger of

being swept away. We had seen the

remains of long-forgotten cottages

and railway bridges; we had seen

birds, fish and mammals plus the

more bizarre sights of lost sunglasses

and walking sticks, carpets and shoes

on the river bed.

Life is sometimes too busy to find

true adventure but, to our surprise, we

had one in our own backyard. River

Wye Source to Sea was a wonderful

experience full of friendship, diverse

people and fantastic scenery. The river

is an ever-changing being, totally

different at the start compared to the

finish, and it had the same impact on

us. It was a tough challenge which

tested us all in different ways but it

was amazing fun and life-affirming. As

we move through winter we miss the

calmness of the river and can’t wait to

jump back in.

R Wye Success

Cheers! The swimmers toast their success

Ian, Nicola and Julie's tips for a swimming challenge


We are close friends who train and coach together at Hereford

Triathlon Club and we’d spent lots of time together competing and

supporting at events home and abroad. We’ve seen each other at

our best and our worst and knew when we needed support and when

we were best left alone. It’s essential to have people that you trust

and know well when you’re doing such a challenge.



At the end we had sunburned faces, dreadlocked hair (Nicola had to

have hers cut off) and blisters from the walk but not one rub or burn

from our wetsuits. We used a mix of vaseline and lanoline and spent

half an hour each morning making sure we were fully covered and

protected from rubbing. Ian and Nicola had made-to-measure suits

from Snugg and Jules had a special suit made by Patagonia as she’s

allergic to neoprene, not ideal for a swimmer!


We knew how and where we were getting in and out each day and

had our support crew at points along the river with food and drink

but we didn’t set ourselves set distances to cover each day as we

didn’t want to create targets which we would have been under

pressure to make. We carried a phone, water and first aid supplies

with us but we wanted to make sure we allowed ourselves time to

enjoy what we were doing.



As well as spending a lot of time in the water during the summer we also spent many hours in the gym working on our core strength and stability. Using ropes, cables and free weights we had a good base to prevent injury and give us more strength and power in the water.


The River Wye is fully navigational but we made sure that we had

permission to get in and out of the water and for our support crew

to access us at the riverbank. We had great help from the local

farmers, landowners and all but one fisherman! The river is owned

by none of us and all of us and it’s so important that we all share the

water and look after it.


It’s almost impossible to put the calories back in that you use up

during a day of swimming but make sure that you eat enough. We

found that relying on energy drinks, cakes, gels and sweets didn’t

work as we’re not used to so much sugar so we also had peanut

butter and marmite and cheese sandwiches plus soup. Foods with

strong flavours were also great and got rid of the taste of river for

a while!



We all did this – every day – sometimes twice a day! We carried a

small bottle of shampoo to wash our hands and goggles after the

food stops and to give us the chance to see.


Spending time swimming and exploring with friends is such a

privilege. Get out there and have a go, even if it’s just for a day.

R Wye

The River Wye

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